Qassem Soleimani, known as a second-most powerful man in Iran and a future leader, has been killed in a US drone strike in Iraq
Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed Friday in a US strike, was one of Iran‘s most prominent figures and a deadly adversary to America and its allies.
As the head of the Quds – or Jersualem – Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani was officially charged with protecting the Islamic revolution, and in practice was used to enforce the regime’s will across the Middle East.
Commonly known as the second most powerful man in Iran, wielding more influence than the president, he was seen by many as a future leader.
His CV included helping Shia militias to kill hundreds of American troops during the US invasion of Iraq, backing Assad as he slaughtered civilians by the thousands during the Syrian civil war, and most recently overseeing the slaughter of hundreds of anti-Iran protesters in Iraq.
Soleimani’s long career started in 1979 when he first joined the Revolutionary Guard, serving as leader of a company that helped repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980.
He was promoted to commander of a division while not yet 30 and by the mid-Eighties was organising missions inside Iraq to undermine the Hussein regime, built on his relationships with Iraqi Kurds.
In 1999, during student protests in Iran, he threatened to topple the government in order to crush the rebellion, and in 2002 – just a few months before the US invaded Iraq – he was promoted to head of the Quds force.
US officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against US troops after the invasion of Iraq, which Iran denies.
Soleimani was beloved by the Iranian regime (pictured being kissed by the Ayatollah) for enforcing its will across the Middle East, including killing hundreds of US troops with IEDs
As commander of the Quds force for more than two decades, Soleimani helped prop up the Assad regime as the dictator slaughtered his civilians by the thousand and oversaw the killing of hundreds of protesters in Iraq
Soleimani himself was popular figure among pro-regime Iranians, who saw him as a selfless hero fighting Iran’s enemies abroad.
Soleimani had been rumored dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad.
Rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Soleimani has been in and out of Baghdad in recent years.
Last month, he tried to broker agreements as Iraqi parties struggled to form a new government.
Where once he kept to the shadows, Soleimani has in recent years become an unlikely celebrity in Iran – replete with a huge following on Instagram.
His profile rose suddenly when he was pushed forward as the public face of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian conflict from 2013, appearing in battlefield photos, documentaries – and even being featured in a music video and animated film.
In a rare interview aired on Iranian state television in October, he said he was in Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to oversee the conflict.
To his fans and enemies alike, Soleimani was the key architect of Iran’s regional influence, leading the fight against jihadist forces and extending Iran’s diplomatic heft in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
‘To Middle Eastern Shiites, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga rolled into one,’ wrote former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack in a profile for Time’s 100 most influential people in 2017.
‘To the West, he is… responsible for exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution, supporting terrorists, subverting pro-Western governments and waging Iran’s foreign wars,’ Pollack added.
With Iran roiled by protests and economic problems at home, and the US once again mounting pressure from the outside, some Iranians had even called for Soleimani to enter domestic politics.
While he has dismissed rumors he might one day run for president, the general has played a decisive role in the politics of Iran’s neighbor, Iraq.
As well as talks on forming a government, he was pivotal in pressuring Iraq’s Kurds to abandon their plans for independence after an ill-judged referendum last September.
His influence has deep roots, since Soleimani was already leading the Quds Force when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
‘My Iranian interlocutors on Afghanistan made clear that while they kept the foreign ministry informed, ultimately it was General Soleimani that would make the decisions,’ former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told the BBC in 2013.
During the US invasion of Iraq, Soleimani was credited with teaching Shia militias how to make powerful roadside IEDs, blamed for more than 600 troop deaths
An Iraqi youth celebrates before a burning US army vehicle following an ambush on a US army convoy in the town of Khaldiyah, 80 kms west of Baghdad, 18 September 2003
During Syria’s civil war, Soleimani was instrumental in helping to reinforce the regime of Bashar al-Assad (his troops, pictured), even as he slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians
Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s popularity and mystique grew out American officials calling for his killing.
By the time it came a decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
‘The warfront is mankind’s lost paradise,’ Soleimani recounted in a 2009 interview.
‘One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries.
‘But there is another kind of paradise. … The warfront was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.’
His firm but quiet presence play perfectly to the Iranian penchant for dignified humility.
‘He sits over there on the other side of room, by himself, in a very quiet way. Doesn’t speak, doesn’t comment, just sits and listens. And so of course everyone is thinking only about him,’ a senior Iraqi official told the New Yorker for a long profile of Soleimani.
A survey published in 2018 by IranPoll and the University of Maryland – one of the few considered reliable by analysts – found Soleimani had a popularity rating of 83 percent, beating President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Western leaders saw him as central to Iran’s ties with militia groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
Soleimani was closely associated with Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon which has carried out terror attacks across the Middle East
Soleimani is also thought to have been the point man for Iran’s foreign policy in places like Afghanistan and the Caucasus region.
Part of his appeal was the suggestion he might bridge Iran’s bitter social divides on issues such as its strict ‘hijab’ clothing rules.
‘If we constantly use terms such as “bad hijab” and “good hijab”, reformist or conservative… then who is left?’ Soleimani said in a speech to mark World Mosque Day in 2017.
‘They are all people. Are all your children religious? Is everybody the same? No, but the father attracts all of them.’
While Soleimani rose in the ranks to be one of the most powerful figures in the Islamic Republic, he was not known to be a religious man.
He never received a religious education. Instead, he rose through the ranks of the military after the Islamic Revolution.
A father of five, the 61-year-old Soleimani rarely gave media interviews.
But there are a few details about his life that are public knowledge.
Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani was said in his homeland to have grown up near the mountainous and the historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers.
The State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom.
Little is known about his childhood, though Iranian accounts suggest Soleimani’s father was a peasant who received a piece of land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but later became encumbered by debts.
Soleimani was also instrumental in organising Shia militias who ransacked the US embassy in Iraq over Christmas (pictured)
Anti-Iran protesters in Iraq were killed in their hundreds by security forces last year, with Soleimani overseeing the carnage
By the time he was 13, Soleimani began working in construction, later as an employee of the Kerman Water Organization.
Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution swept the shah from power and Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in its wake.
He deployed to Iran’s northwest with forces that put down Kurdish unrest following the revolution.
Soon after, Iraq invaded Iran and began the two countries long, bloody eight-year war.
The fighting killed more than 1 million people and saw Iran send waves of lightly armed troops into minefields and the fire of Iraqi forces, including teenage soldiers.
Solemani’s unit and others came under attack by Iraqi chemical weapons as well.
Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to ‘meaningless deaths’ on the battlefield, while still weeping at times with fervor when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.
It is not known if he participated in the mass demonstrations that eventually led to the ouster of the shah in 1979.
After the Islamic Republic came to be, Soleimani joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – a military force separate from the army.
Soleimani’s charisma propelled him to the senior officer ranks. In 1998, he was named commander of the Quds Force.
‘Quds’ is the Persian word for Jerusalem, which the Iranians have vowed to liberate.
It was first established during the Iran-Iraq conflict with the goal of helping the Kurds in their struggle against Saddam Hussein.
Another key function of the Quds Force was to spread the Islamic regime’s message to the Iranian military – a necessity at the time given that there were fears the army would turn against the government.
The Quds Force eventually started to train military outfits outside of Iran, like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Lieutenant General and Commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani praying during a religious ceremony in Tehran in March 2015
In secret US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, US officials openly discussed Iraqi efforts to reach out to Soleimani to stop rocket attacks on the highly secured Green Zone in Baghdad in 2009.
Another cable in 2007 outlines then-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani offering a US official a message from Soleimani acknowledging having ‘hundreds’ of agents in the country while pledging, ‘I swear on the grave of (the late Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini I haven´t authorized a bullet against the US.’
US officials at the time dismissed Soleimani’s claim as they saw Iran as both an arsonist and a fireman in Iraq, controlling some Shiite militias while simultaneously stirring dissent and launching attacks.
US forces would blame the Quds Force for an attack in Karbala that killed five American troops, as well as for training and supplying the bomb makers whose improvised explosive devices made IED – improvised explosive device – a dreaded acronym among soldiers.
In a 2010 speech, US General David Petreaus recounted a message from Soleimani he said explained the scope of Iranian’s powers.
‘He said, “General Petreaus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan”,’ Petraeus said.
The US and the United Nations put Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though his travels continued.
In 2011, US officials also named him as a defendant in an outlandish Quds Force plot to allegedly hire a purported Mexican drug cartel assassin to kill a Saudi diplomat.
But his greatest notoriety would arise from the Syrian civil war and the rapid expansion of the Islamic State group.
Iran, a major backer of Assad, sent Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against IS and others opposing Assad’s rule.
While a US-led coalition focused on airstrikes, several ground victories for Iraqi forces came with photographs emerging of Soleimani leading, never wearing a flak jacket.
‘Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life,’ one Iraqi militia commander said.